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Christian Straube’s faith in China’s civil society

Christian Straube of the Asia House Foundation in Cologne

Since 2019, Christian Straube has been working as a program manager for the China Program of the Asienhaus Foundation. Together with his colleague Joanna Klabisch, Straube strives to promote civil society dialogue with China. “Chinese civil society faces some of the very same challenges as civil societies in Germany and Europe do, although structured differently,” he says. “We especially see overlapping in terms of classic environmental issues, urban architecture and gender.”

The “EU-China NGO Twinning Program”, which he co-supervised and which has since been discontinued, showed him how valuable cooperation at the civil society level is. And this is despite the fact that the framework conditions are becoming tighter and tighter: “It is increasingly difficult to engage in bottom-up dialogue,” Straube notes. The legal requirements have become stricter since the Non-Governmental Organization Management Law (“FNGO Law”) was signed at the beginning of 2017. Topics with potential for social conflicts, such as feminism with regard to the role of women in society, are to be more strictly censored. “As soon as a social component comes into play, you have to be careful how you frame the dialogue format,” says Christian Straube.

However, not only China with its strict guidelines are causing difficulties. On the German side, Straube complains about the frequent lack of awareness of diversity. He often encounters the idea that the Chinese population is “partly homogeneously controlled and that there is no civil society activity”. That is why one goal of the China program by the Asienhaus Foundation, is to strengthen China competence in Europe as well as to create an awareness of society in China among political decision-makers. Through publications, the program managers try to facilitate access to information in Germany. Despite everything, Straube does not see himself as a China expert: “I think you can have an idea about aspects of China. I often miss a little more humility when it comes to China“.

A connection to Asia runs in the family

Where does his passion for Asia come from? It was “laid in his cradle“, as he says. His father studied Asian studies at Humboldt University, but both of his grandfathers already had professional contacts in Asia. This is particularly remarkable because his family lived in the GDR. Christian Straube himself was drawn to Asia at an early age. Through the AFS exchange association, he spent a school year abroad in Malaysia.

During his stay, he regularly hung out with people from the Chinese community and got to know the Chinese New Year, among other things. Later, he studied Modern Sinology, Economics and South Asian Politics at the Ruprecht Karls University in Heidelberg and wrote his thesis on the Chinese abroad in Malaysia during the Chinese Xinhai Revolution. Everyday conversations in Chinese do not pose a problem for Straube. However, he sees it as an acute challenge to preserve the language. After all, he not only speaks Chinese but also Bemba. For his doctoral thesis, Straube went to Zambia, where he intended to research Chinese companies in the African copper belt. But access to research proved so difficult that he had to adjust the focus of his research again. “The industry doesn’t like to put its cards on the table.

Nevertheless, he was able to complete his dissertation in 2018. The resulting book tells the story of material and social decay, as well as renewal in a former mining settlement. Christian Straube did not let his experiences with China’s increasingly dubious reputation in the world demotivate him. Together with his colleague, he has set up a new project at the Asienhaus Foundation: Civil society dialogue in the context of the new Silk Road is to be strengthened. Organizations from relevant countries are to be networked for this very purpose. Paula Faul

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